The way Bristol traffic patterns changed during the pandemic

Since the first lockdown, many Bristolians have harboured hopes we would emerge from the pandemic into quieter streets with fresher air.

A sharp drop in air pollution during the first lockdown, together with stories of bird song and deer running free in UK city streets, fuelled dreams of a cleaner, greener, Covid-free dawn.

Nearly a year later, the pandemic has morphed into a seemingly never-ending nightmare and the local authority has abandoned hopes that mass behaviour change, with the help of a few street closures and cycle lanes, would reduce Bristol’s toxic air pollution levels to within legal limits.

Bristol City Council must introduce a Clean Air Zone by October 29, and has accepted that it will have to charge all polluting vehicles, even private cars, to enter at least part of the zone.

It is due to submit its final proposal to the Government on February 26, but is still deciding how big our CAZ will be. So what happened to air quality and traffic in the city in the past year that dashed the local authority’s hopes of avoiding clean air charges for drivers?

Officers crunched the numbers and presented their analysis to members of the overview and scrutiny management board last week.

It showed the pandemic has had a disappointing effect on traffic and air pollution levels in Bristol, but appears to have changed which routes vehicles are taking.

While traffic and air pollution levels plummeted during the first lockdown, traffic returned to 80 per cent of normal over the next six months and fell by only 20 per cent during the second lockdown last autumn.

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By December, people were making the same number of journeys as before the pandemic, but were tending to drive in the outlying areas of the city rather than the centre.

“It seems fair to conclude that this evidence shows a decline in traffic volumes and improvements to air quality during the first lockdown in particular,” the officers’ report said.

“The second lockdown was less restrictive than the first and as such didn’t lead to such a steep decline in traffic volumes.

the way bristol traffic patterns changed during the pandemic - The way Bristol traffic patterns changed during the pandemic
Bristol air pollution levels: Raw NO2 levels by month in 2019 (pink) and 2020 (teal)
(Image: Bristol City Council)

“Whilst we cannot say from this data that traffic levels and associated pollution levels will definitely return to pre-Covid levels, we also don’t have sufficient evidence to say otherwise.”

The report added: “Whilst traffic levels in the central area appear to be lower than pre Covid-19, it is also the case that the traffic behaviour is now appearing more dispersed over the whole city rather than just in the central area.

“This could be because people are not travelling in to work within the central area as they were previously and are now spending more time in their local areas for shopping etc.

“They are still therefore making a similar amount of journeys but just not as part of a commute.”

The officers’ findings are set out in more detail below.

Their analysis included air quality data to October 31 and traffic data to December 23, 2020.

This meant the air quality analysis was confined to the first national lockdown, whereas the traffic analysis included the second lockdown as well.

the way bristol traffic patterns changed during the pandemic 1 - The way Bristol traffic patterns changed during the pandemic
Daily traffic levels on working days (excluding bank holidays) in Bristol from February to April 2020
(Image: Bristol City Council)

First lockdown: March to June 2020

Traffic levels plummeted by half during the first national lockdown, largely as a result of the closure of schools, building sites, bars, restaurants and non-essential shops, members heard.

Homeworking and home deliveries became the new norm, and the council sacrificed road space to widen footpaths and add new cycle lanes.

Levels of the traffic pollutant nitrogen dioxide (NO2) reduced by up to 76 per cent, compared with the same period the year before.

Oxides of nitrogen, which are also produced directly from exhaust emissions, fell even further, by a maximum average of 86 per cent.

The sharpest drops were in the city centre, at places like Colston Avenue, where traffic levels fell much more dramatically than on the inner ring roads, such as Temple Way, as people continued to drive in the outer parts of the city.

Between lockdowns: April to November 2020

Traffic levels began to rise after the first lockdown, as schools and businesses reopened, but they were still 18 per cent lower than normal nearly six months later, in October.

This could have been down to a widespread shift to home working during the first lockdown, as well as a number of “street space schemes” introduced by the council, such as the closure of Bristol Bridge and Baldwin Street, officers said.

Bristol Clean Air Zone

Second lockdown: November 2020

A second wave of Covid-19 cases in Autumn, saw Bristol and the rest of the county subject to localised, tier restrictions until a second national lockdown was imposed in on November 5.

The second lockdown lasted until December 2.

The restrictions were not as harsh in the second lockdown – for example, garden centres were allowed to stay open – and traffic levels in Bristol fell by just 18 per cent compared with pre-pandemic levels.

the way bristol traffic patterns changed during the pandemic 2 - The way Bristol traffic patterns changed during the pandemic
Daily traffic levels on working days (excluding bank holidays) in Bristol from September to December 2020
(Image: Bristol City Council)

Between lockdowns: December

Bristol went straight into “very high alert” after the second lockdown, and spent most of the following weeks under the tier 3 restrictions until the third and current lockdown began on January 6.

The council’s traffic data only go up as far as December 23.

At that time, the traffic that once went into the centre appeared to be driving around the outer parts of the city instead.

“Traffic is definitely dispersed more over the whole city,” lead officer for the clean air plan, Abigail Smith, told members.

“It’s definitely not sitting within the central area, and whether or not that might be a pattern that continues we need to continue monitoring in order to see that.”

What next?

Officers said they expect traffic and NO2 levels to rise again after the third lockdown, but it is difficult to say how quickly and how far.

No one knows how permanent the shift to home working will be or how people will choose to get around the city once restrictions are lifted.

How quickly the economy will recover and allow bus services to return to full capacity and individuals and businesses to upgrade their vehicles to cleaner models are also unknown.

The officers’ report has been submitted to the Government’s Joint Air Quality Unit (JAQU) for review, along with other technical material.

The council expects to be able to choose between a small and a medium-sized CAZ, depending on JAQU feedback, and plans to submit its final proposal on February 26.

The full business case is set to be signed off by the ruling Labour cabinet the day before, and must be approved by the Government before it is put in place.

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